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Friday, January 17, 2020

In the summer of 1968, the training ship Mercury in the Hamble River closed down after many years of training boys for the Royal and Merchant Navies. First published in the February 1971 issue of Sea Breezes, here, T F Peppit, an old “Mercury boy”, recalls his training days in the establishment...

The training ship Mercury was one of the “wooden wall” training ships which had their heyday in the early 20th century and are now almost extinct. The Mercury closed in the summer of 1968 and this article is a tribute by one who remembers his time there, dimly through the mists of a quarter century; disrespectfully, because boys are at their least respectful in their adolescence at such institutions; but overwhelmingly with affection and gratitude. Because of the latter, I trust that those who feel themselves somewhat distorted by the two former will excuse the writer’s faults.

The Mercury was founded by Charles Arthur Richard Hoare, the banker, as a school where “decent working class boys” might be trained for the Royal Navy. In my time, it also trained entrants for the Merchant Navy and was run by the second generation of the founder’s family. The captain of the ship at this period was C B Fry, the famous all-round sportsman.

The school stood in some 45 acres of ground just above the village of Hamble. It consisted of the Captain’s House and the ship’s domestic offices – approached with awe and temerity by such lowly beings as myself; the various school buildings; the actual ship – late HMS President, a converted sail frigate, on which the ship’s company slept; extensive playing fields; and even more extensive areas of salt marsh, covered at high water.

There was also a large, very beautifully kept rose garden, from which we were banned except for one or two Sundays when the roses were at their peak. Then we were allowed to walk through, just once, to admire the blooms. I must admit that being normal healthy boys, we were only ever to appreciate that privilege many years later, in retrospect, if at all.

The philosophy of the founder, as interpreted by his successors was simple: a strong religious bias, music, discipline and plenty of practical seamanship. This latter was very much due to the instructional staff – sterling ex-Royal Navy chief petty officer seamen almost to a man. I often feel that the “properly qualified” school-teachers of the Mercury’s later years could never fully replace the flavour of these uniquely ideal instructors.

The uniform also was simple, bell bottom rig, but even then, almost of a bygone age. Blue jean collars for number ones; but workaday number threes were worn without blue jean collars, the silk replaced by an “alpaca” – a triangle of coarse black material rolled into a sausage, and in place of a white front a serge “flannel” with a blue braid at the neck. With this uniform, shorts were worn every Wednesday, no matter what the weather.

Bare-feet were also the standard rig, except for divisions and other semiformal occasions. Generally, boots were for cleaning, not wearing and were the centre of a strange tradition. Bootlaces for some reason were very sparingly issued, and not to have a pair was a comparatively heinous crime.

Hence every time you removed your boots the laces were taken out and kept in your pocket. Any laces left sculling in boots were fair game, and generally the more senior boys possessed quite a store of ill-gotten laces stowed away for the emergency re-equipment of younger boys under their particular charge.

Mercury boys were never known by name, always by number, and this system had certain traditions. The thousands were never used; thus my number of 3620 gave me the official name of “six twenty”, and to those semi-intimates who did not use my Christian name, I was familiarly “Twenty”. One was still considered a new boy until one “got your hundred”, that is until a new boy joined with a number 100 greater than your own.

To achieve a “second hundred” was a rare feat, and only granted to a very few, very lofty individuals. With an intake of about 30 every term, these two landmarks of a boy’s career occurred just after one and well after two years respectively.

The ship’s company was organised into four watches: port watch, port band, starboard watch and starboard band (I never did find out what the significance of the “band” was, for it is not a common naval term). Each watch was divided into three sections. Senior boys in each section earned a stripe and were termed “badge boys”. Section leaders might aspire to two badges and leading hands of watches three badges, whilst the utmost pinnacle, the leading hand of the ship might aspire to three badges and a crown.

The structure of badge boys, section leaders and leading hands was self-disciplinary to an astounding degree, and their regime was certainly more severe than that of the ship’s officers. It also, less happily, contained some elements of physical violence, and arbitrariness, but no one suffered, or was permitted to suffer from this in any except a minor way, and as a practical object lesson in uses and abuses of power it was invaluable.

Weekly routine was simple, but rigorous. Reveille was at 0545 and from then until 0700 was “clean ship”. Hammocks had to be lashed and stowed, one of the three decks scrubbed each day, and every bit of bright work burnished. At the end of this evolution, the ship’s company were ferried ashore in 32 ft cutters, the four leading hands taking week about as cox’n of the two boats.

Then followed another hour for showers, boot changing and the muster of at least one or two kit items daily on a weekly roster. Then breakfast, always cocoa, porridge every morning but Sunday (that was the day for bacon and crisps) a fifth of a loaf with either margarine or jam, but never both together.

There was never enough to satisfy growing boys and one of the most early acquired arts was that of cutting a loaf into five portions exact to the merest fraction – he who cut had last pick. This art, once learned, was never forgotten; I have it to this day.

The morning and afternoon were each divided into two periods, one scholastic, one practical, so that every boy had, besides schoolwork, one session each of seamanship, gunnery, band and signals every two days. Seamanship was, as its name implies, practical instruction in our chosen craft. Gunnery embraced parade training, physical training and, due entirely to the versatility of the instructor, many other quite fascinating, but now only dimly recollected activities.

Music was an essential part of the fabric of the Mercury, and band periods were devoted to learning to play instruments in the ship’s brass and woodwind band. The instructor was a delightful, gentle character. An ex-Royal Marine bandmaster, but with a pair of blind spots. He was no disciplinarian and was totally unable to comprehend the one or two characters who could not, or would not, progress beyond the scale of C major. Less fortunately for these skates the senior bandmaster was a rather tougher proposition.

Signals included morse, semaphore and all the general yarning sessions we could inveigle out of the instructor, another old sea dog with the most fluent vocabulary of near swear words I have ever encountered. This gentleman was also a practical seaman of no mean ability and it is possible that as much seamanship was imparted in his signals sessions as in the seamanship periods themselves.

The scholastic work was of an adequate standard, especially in the top two forms, A1, the Royal Navy class, and B1, their Merchant Navy rivals. I was in the latter and as a tribute to the standard therein I left the Mercury with sufficient navigation to pass my Second Mate’s certificate four years later without recourse to any swotting on that particular score – otherwise a hard task indeed after a tramping apprenticeship.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - July 2019 Issue
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